Oh no, the Fun Police are out; and cliché abuse
The ASA's first verdicts on gender stereotyping prove what a total mess the entire concept is, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: the madness of 'leaning in' as a term of abuse.
The self-appointed Fun Police, aka the Advertising Standards Authority, have made their first pronouncements on the vexed issue of gender stereotyping...and it doesn’t make for pretty reading. In short, in response to complaints about three ads, they’ve banned two (VW E-Golf and Philadelphia Cream Cheese) and allowed one, for Buxton Mineral Water.
Here’s Mediatel News’ summary, with the caveat that, if you click on the offending ads themselves, you’ll now find nothing. They’ve been ‘disappeared’. I understand this, but it’s not helpful for the industry; it needs to be able to study them in fine detail, alongside the judgements, to avoid making the same mistakes. Let’s hope samizdat versions are available somewhere.
We can start by looking at the ad that escaped censure, subject of five, yes five, complaints.
It features a female ballet dancer, a male drummer and a male rower. Each are shown practising/training. The complainants thought their activities were those stereotypically associated with gender. The ad’s line of approach is that, like the mineral water, which overcomes geological obstacles to rise to its source, they too are perfecting their skills to rise to the top.
How is a female ballet dancer and a male rower not stereotyping? After all, Buxton could have featured male ballet dancers and female drummers and rowers. The answer, according to the ASA, is that it’s less to do with their sex than it is their equal levels of drive and talent. “Each skill", the ASA verdict pronounced, "was shown to be equally difficult and demanding." Read it in full here.
Hmm. To me, this sounds a bit like dancing on the head of a pin.
So too do the verdicts in the other cases - it’s just that they went the other way. The Philly ad features two hapless dads so distracted by food they put their babies on to a restaurant conveyor belt. Bad, according to the ASA, because “the narrative and the humour derived from the use of a gender stereotype. The humour did not mitigate the harmful effect of the stereotype, indeed it was central to it because the humour derived from the audience’s familiarity with the gender stereotype being portrayed."
Well, that is as clear as mud to me. What would have happened if the ad hadn’t been funny? Or what if the careless parents were mums?
And who remembers the time David Cameron left his daughter behind in the pub near Chequers? Millions of parents around the world thought: ‘that could have been me’. But, obviously not the 128 people who complained about Philly.
For VW, a man and a woman camp on the edge of a sheer cliff, two male astronauts carry out mundane tasks in space, a Paralympic long jumper trains...and a woman sits on a bench next to a pram. As an E-Golf passes by, she looks up. “When we learn to adapt, we can achieve anything.”
Three people complained on the grounds that men were portrayed as adventurous and women as care-providers. “Viewers were more likely to focus on the occupation of the characters featured in the ad and observe a direct contrast between the how the female and male characters were depicted.”
They may do so, but: one, they’d have to be extraordinarily observant to pick that up, since this was a 30-second ad and the mum features for about two seconds; and two, they’d need to be highly prone to taking offence. This may explain why there were only three complaints.
Would it have been better to mix the sexes up so that, for example, there was a woman astronaut or Paralympian? Possibly. What about substituting a pram-minding dad? Undoubtedly. But how much, thinking about society in the round, does it really matter?
It’s a mess, as both the IPA and ISBA said loud and clear in their responses.
ISBA said: “Decisions that go beyond the letter and intent of the new rule will likely cause confusion for advertisers and the broader co-regulatory system.”
The IPA talked of the “danger of unintended damaging consequences, and the stifling of creativity”.
They’re right, to which I’d add some random observations of my own.
One, even if you think the ASA is right to take on gender stereotyping, which I most assuredly don’t, the examples shown here suggest that it has taken a sledgehammer to a nut. The industry, via initiatives like the UnStereotype Alliance, is already tackling the issue.
Two, it feels to me as though the ASA’s default position is that if an ad involves stereotyping then it is, by definition, likely to be offensive and harmful. But stereotyping is an essential creative tool, not just in advertising, but TV, fiction (literary or not), comedy, film and so on. Stereotyping is a shorthand way of showing normal people in their everyday lives.
Three, in terms of time and resources that will be consumed by this crusade, the ASA has created a huge problem for the industry. How much time will creatives and clients spend debating (i.e. waste) the minutiae of an ad - casting, script, time on camera and so on - to pass a stereotyping threshold that is vague, unclear, subjective and, as the wordings of the ASA verdicts show, highly nuanced?
Four, the ASA has created a rod for its own back. It is already under-resourced and under-funded given the way its remit has expanded in recent years. We live in an age where microscopic elements of society mainline ‘offence’ like a drug. Give them an opportunity, and it becomes self-fulfilling. Time and money that the ASA could have spent fighting online shimmery...won’t be.
Five, to avoid vexatious claims of offence, should the ASA introduce a complaints threshold, below which it wouldn’t look at an ad? Over 100, like Philly, and the ad is examined, and under (like the three for VW and five for Buxton) and it ignores the complaint? Also, while we’re at it, would it not be helpful to know more about the complainants in aggregate? How many, for example, were men, and how many women?
Six, where does this leave Clearcast, a critical part of the co/self-regulatory system? Clearcast approved the ads in question here. But if agencies can’t trust a Clearcast approval, the system is going to grind to a halt. Last year, it examined 32,000 scripts and 61,000 films. If it is now on full ‘stereotyping alert’, will it find it easier just to say 'no'?
Seven, how much will this stifle creativity? The cost, not to mention the sheer pain of a ban, means clients (and creatives) will be under pressure to take the safe/r option every time. That’s a bad outcome for everyone.
Eight, and this is a sideshow, note that neither the VW nor the Philly ad were made in the UK. The VW ad was made by DDB Europe and adapted by A&E DDB for the UK. The Philly ad was made by Ogilvy Paris. It’s how adland works these days, but it’s going to make life much more complicated for multinational clients and their agency networks. Of course, if it means that if UK-based agencies (and clients, presumably) take greater ownership of creative that runs in the UK, that is on balance better for the UK industry.
And nine, venturing into the wider world, why is advertising carrying the can for gender stereotyping alone? Why not TV, radio, film and so on? I’m sure Ofcom’s got time on its hands. Love Island, for example...
When a cliché becomes a term of abuse
Sheryl Sandberg coined the term ‘Lean in’ in 2013 in her book of the same name.
Given her then role-model status (not so much now, I think), it wasn’t long before ‘lean in’ became a go-to cliche among the ad industry. Eeuurgh. Agencies were required to ‘lean into clients’, planners to ‘lean into culture’, clients to ‘lean into’ creativity. You couldn’t move in adland without hitting your shins on the phrase.
Here’s Spanish clothing brand Desigual ‘leaning in’ to selfie culture. Here’s a top creative talking about how “two streaming services leaned in to the unfortunate realities about our digital culture".
It reached peak lean in for me when someone asked me, via email, to ‘lean into’ fixing a time for a meeting. It got to the point where I didn’t even know it what it meant any longer.
And now, from adland in Australia, I bring you ‘leaning in’ as a term of abuse. There’s a row going on about a Kellogg’s pitch, in which it is demanding 120-day payment terms from media agencies.
Defending her position (indefensible in my view), Tamara Howe of Kellogg’s said: “Pitching is commonplace...businesses have to lean in [my italics] to win business.”
Passive aggressive, or what? I think she means ‘agencies...just suck it up.’ If the original meaning of the term was 'positively/constructively engage', she is actually doing the very opposite.
That Sandberg...she’s got a lot to answer for.